a long the riverrun

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2222

Before his death on May 13, 1987, Richard Ellmann completed work on what was soon to become his second critically acclaimed biography, of Oscar Wilde, prepared a revised edition of his first, on James Joyce, and somehow found time to begin planning the collection of essays under review here, a long the riverrun. The title, although apparently provided by the publisher, is nevertheless apt, conflating the last words of James Joyce’s last novel, Finnegans Wake (1939) and its first, those which conclude with those which begin, in much the same way the essays collected here, at the very end of Ellmann’s life, range over very nearly the entire length of his exemplary career. Of the twenty essays, all but one have been previously published and, again, all but one concern the great modernist writers—and their contemporaries and immediate predecessors—to whom Ellmann devoted himself over the past half-century. Although the very earliest pieces, from the 1950’s, now appear rather dated—less, however, in content than in approach—all manage to be formidably erudite without ever becoming dully pedantic; all are marked by a graciousness of style, a generosity of spirit, and a knack for making the perfect, often provocative summary statement: “’What distinguished decadence from corruption or philistinism was that it could be discussed with relish as well as concern.” The essays also exhibit Ellmann’s genius for discerning connections and lines of succession where a lesser mind would undoubtedly have found, at worst, nothing at all and, at best, mere proximity in space or time. In the opening piece, for example, Ellmann displays a characteristically vast range of reference, moving deftly from Alexander Pushkin, Charles Baudelaire, Stephane Mallarme’, Walter Pater, Theophile Gautier, I. K. Huysmans, and Arthur Symons, to D. H. Lawrence, James McNeill Whistler, A. E. Housman, Soren Kierkegaard, T. S. Eliot, Emile Zola, Henry James, and Mario Paz. This is not mere name-dropping, not even of the specialized, pseudo-scholarly kind found in the literary histories, which Ellmann, himself a contributor, criticizes for their reductiveness. Rather, each name forms an indispensable link in Ellmann’s chain of connections; each serves in its own small way to make up the necessary background against which he makes good his case for seeing Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce as “counter-decadents” striving against the decadence of their age in order to effect, similarly and successively, a new Hellenism in the arts and in society.

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Critical of those who turn “innovations into inevitabilities,” Ellmann invariably takes a wider view, seeing a constellation of forces at work where others posit a simple equation. As he points out in the bluntly and brilliantly titled essay, “Yeats Without Analogue,” the mind of the artist “is a rage, not a warehouse.” Efforts to understand a writer in terms of a movement or, worse, specific identifiable sources and influences are therefore doomed from the start. The literary relations between writers, for example, prove far less one-sided and one-directional than generally believed and more a matter of mutual (although often reluctant) influence arising out of some initial opposition. Thus, in revising the manuscript of The Waste Land (1922), Ezra Pound brought about a change not only in Eliot’s poem but in his own later work as well. Thanks to Pound’s harsh critiques of Yeats’s poetry, Yeats did reluctantly become more attentive to technique—and Pound more aware of the incoherence of his own work as a weakness (as Yeats felt) rather than a strength. And although W. H. Auden came to lament the influence Yeats had on his early work—a point critics have been quick to parrot—Ellmann believes that readers ought not to remain blind, as it seems Auden generally was, to the ways in which he also benefited from that influence.

More interesting, in part because more exhaustive, is Ellmann’s tracing of the way in which Henry James’s reading of Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) influenced the writing of his first novel, Roderick Hudson (1876), and gave impetus to what was to become a major theme in his work. Writing about the aesthetes whom Pater championed enabled James “to represent people like himself under the guise of disclosing their shortcomings.” He covertly criticized himself by overtly criticizing his fictional aesthetes and, until the writing of his last completed novel, The Golden Bowl (1904), remained safely and successfully in the closet. What happened to James, and what happened in similar ways to Joyce, Auden, Yeats, Pound, and others, is this: “A powerful idea communicates some of its strength to him who challenges it.” It is Marcel Proust’s view, quoted by Ellmann in one essay and implied in all, most interestingly, perhaps, in “The Two Faces of Edward.” The writers of the Edwardian period embraced secularism with what can only be described as a nearly religious intensity. They replaced the God they rejected with a Life made in His image: orderly, meaningful, virtually divine. It was, however, a Life—or Life Force—entirely lacking in the disruptive energy that was to characterize the modernist writers who were to follow, and who were themselves in turn strengthened by the very ideas they challenged.

Although “The Two Faces of Edward” rather nicely sums up one thematic current in a long the riverrun, it also differs from the nineteen other essays in one most significant way, for it is not, as they assuredly are, biographical in approach. Indeed, three of the most interesting essays in the collection are those which deal most specifically with the biographer’s art and which were originally published as reviews of Carlos Baker’s Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (1969), Charles Osborne’s W. H. Auden: The Life of a Poet (1980), and Deidre Bair’s Samuel Beckett: A Biography (1978). Short as these pieces are, together they constitute an excellent summary of Ellmann’s views on the biographer’s art, duties, and responsibilities. He has, for example, little sympathy for Baker’s “archival” approach, which offers information rather than evaluation and which therefore fails to get at the “interior drama” that Ellmann believes must be the goal of biographical study. Preferring to compile and exhaust rather than understand his subject, Baker only ends up betraying his own timidity as he leaves the reader to drown in a sea of indiscriminately presented facts. Baker fails in large part because he does not interpret Hemingway’s life; he merely catalogs it. Deidre Bair fails largely because she does interpret, irresponsibly so in Ellmann’s judgment. Acknowledging the immense difficulty of Bair’s undertaking to write the life of an author who has so assiduously kept himself out of the public eye, an author who told her at the very outset that he would neither help nor hinder her in her pursuits, Ellmann nevertheless maintains that Bair’s self-professed effort to illuminate the highly problematic relationship between Beckett’s writings and his life not only fails; it actually clouds that relationship further. The conclusions she draws are often refuted by her own array of facts, and the interpretations she offers often entail a no less blameworthy distortion of the biographical record. She fails to make good her claim that Beckett’s fiction is deeply autobiographical and overlooks completely the noteworthy discrepancy between the existential aloneness of Beckett’s characters and the biographical fact of Beckett’s having “always been gregarious.” Why Beckett chose not to “hinder” Bair in the writing of this biography, one which Ellmann calls “a new disaster for a man who sees his life thus far as a prolonged disaster,” is a question for which Ellmann offers a few tentative answers of his own. Ellmann is much less tentative in his overall assessment of Bair’s work: “What Miss Bair has presented, in an account that is crowded with stumbles and thwarts and mischances, is a simulacrum, Sam Botchit rather than Sam Beckett. Happily Beckett exists somewhere else.”

Ellmann is justifiably hard on fellow biographers deficient in scholarly rigor or unmindful that the aim of their art is understanding—or more specifically, the understanding of genius-based upon the perception and elucidation of relationships, both personal and literary. Although he proves no less critical of those who would dismiss biography as a legitimate, indeed a necessary form of literary criticism, Ellmann’s tone in dealing with these unbelievers is in general quite different:

more chiding, almost avuncular, at times even whimsical. Roland Barthes may be nowhere mentioned in a long the riverrun, but he is several times obliquely present as Ellmann acknowledges Barthes’s death-of-the-author-birth-of-the-reader idea solely in order to cast it aside. In the essay entitled “Dorothea’s Husbands,” for example, Ellmann looks at the problematic ending of George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch (1871-1872) in the light of available biographical evidence, specifically “possible prototypes” for Mr. Casaubon and Will Ladislaw. Ellmann’s research and intelligence convince his and Eliot’s readers of the rightness of his conjectures and conclusions, most importantly, that the author’s own “internal dialectic” necessitated that she castigate Casaubon and idealize Ladislaw. The assumption which lies behind those conjectures and conclusions proves less convincing, in spite of Ellmann’s efforts to present it as merely a matter of good common sense:The peril of confusing [biographical and fictional] universes is one to which we have been alerted by fastidious critics and structuralists alike. Yet many novelists are themselves liable to this lapse, and fondly imagine that they have created characters out of people they have known. To follow them a little way is at worst devoted, and at best profitable, since the mode of translating characters from the one universe to the other must be close to the basic movements of the mind, and so of critical as well as biographical consequence.

The assumption fails to convince not because it does not conform to the current fashion in literary theory; it fails because it places unnecessary restrictions on the mind. Consequently, when in the charmingly anecdotal essay, “At the Yeatses’,” Ellmann obligingly accepts the widow’s corrections of his two misreadings of her late husband’s poems, he displays more than mere gallantry. His willingness to defer to the biographically based authority of her readings implies his unwillingness to say of recent critical trends what he does say (in 1984) of psychoanalytical theory: “That Freud makes biography more difficult does not mean that he should be put aside.”

Some rapprochement is in order here, for if Ellmann had something to gain from the structuralists and poststructuralists he too cavalierly dismisses, then surely they have something to gain from him in terms not only of scholarly rigor but too of that teasing out of the warring forces of signification upon which deconstructionist practice rests. The best evidence that such a mutual gain is possible may be found in the collection’s most interesting essay, “Love in the Catskills,” which, rather surprisingly, deals with the early nineteenth century American writer, Washington Irving. Ellmann begins the essay by acknowledging that there are very real dangers inherent in both the intentional fallacy (for biographers) and the “parthenogenetic fallacy that the text is a virgin birth accomplished without human intervention” (for structuralists and poststructuralists). He then goes on to look at one of the most puzzling passages in Irving’s best-known story, “Rip Van Winkle,” the one in which Rip comes upon “the most melancholy party of pleasure he had ever witnessed.” Tracing his way in detail and with great care through Irving’s biography, Ellmann is finally able to say thatI think we can now risk an explanation of the awe-striking jollity of the Dutchmen in ’Rip Van winkle.’ Bankruptcy caused Irving to relive, in the new ruin of his affairs, the old ruin of eight years earlier. The paradox of his life at that earlier time, of which he was acutely conscious, was that he had to write amusingly while feeling funereal, to resurrect with forced animation the dead Dutchmen as figures of fun while bearing always the memory of the glazed last look of Matilda Hoffman, ’on the threshold of existence.’ The story [is] a parable of his own monstrous dual vision, in which the history of New York took shape as farce, and the history of his own life took shape as tragedy, a vision followed by years of depression, and then by his reawakening, an artist once again, but a young man no longer.

Ellmann’s conjectures do indeed “help to explain the subterranean power” of Irving’s story far more subtly and provocatively than any mere backtracking to its “source” in the German folktale “Peter Klaus.” This is not to say, as Ellmann unfortunately and unnecessarily does, that this “baffling passage” will now “cease to baffle.” His biographical researches do not definitively explain either the passage or the larger story but instead contribute to the existence of such an explanation not as a fact but as a hypothetical possibility. What Ellmann has done, here and elsewhere, is not to establish the passage’s meaning but instead and more usefully to extend its and the entire story’s range of reference, making it more rather than less chaotic. The meaning of the passage, the work, the author becomes not so much clearer as richer, residing not in any one explanation but, to borrow Ellmann’s own words, “somewhere else”—”happily” so.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 62

Booklist. LXXXV, March 1, 1989, p.1086.

Boston Globe. April 5, 1989, p.40.

Contemporary Review. CCLIII, December, 1988, p.253.

Kirkus Reviews. LVII, January 15, 1989, p.99.

Library Journal. CXIV, February 15, 1989, p.158.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, March 19, 1989, p.21.

The Observer. October 2, 1988, p.43.

Publishers Weekly CCXXXV, January 27, 1989, p.46.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 4, 1988, p.1234

The Wall Street Journal. May 26, 1989, p. A9.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, March 26, 1989, p.10.

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